Preferred Citation: McKenna, Thomas M. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1998.

Chapter 7 Muslim Separatism and the Bangsamoro Rebellion

Martial Law and the Bangsamoro Rebellion

When President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, the principal reasons offered for its imposition were the existence of armed conflict between Muslims and Christians and a Muslim "secessionist movement" in the Philippine South (Marcos 1972). The information available from that period provides scant justification for such an emergency measure. Sectarian violence was on the wane, with no serious incidents reported in the previous six months. There had also been no public pronouncements or activities by Datu Udtug and the MIM for more than a year.[20] The imposition of martial law was, in fact, the proximate cause, not the consequence, of an armed Muslim insurgency against the Philippine state, and it led to an unprecedented level of violence and disruption in Cotabato and all of Muslim Mindanao. By 1977, the government estimated that there were as many as million displaced civilians in the South and at least two hundred thousand additional refugees who had fled to Sabah (Mercado 1984, 162).

The martial law regime immediately moved to collect all unauthorized guns in the Philippines by ordering the surrender of civilian firearms. Three weeks after declaring martial law, President Marcos announced that he was prepared to commit an entire division of troops to the South to "annihilate" outlaws if all guns were not turned in by the 25th of October. A few days before the deadline, Marawi City, in the province of Lanao, was attacked by more than four hundred armed Maranaos. They held strategic positions in the city for three days until overpowered by superior army forces.[21] One week later, fighting began between Muslim rebels and government soldiers in Cotabato, and in mid-November Marcos sent thousands of troops to Mindanao (Mercado 1984). By late November, fierce clashes between government units and separatist rebels were occurring throughout the South (Schlegel 1978).

The Activation of the Moro National Liberation Front

Martial law, with its ban on political groups, caused the dissolution of such aboveground Muslim organizations as the MIM and Nurul Islam, and the activation of the underground Moro National Liberation


Front. By the end of 1972, the developing Muslim insurgency began to coalesce under its banner. The MNLF never controlled all of the rebels fighting the government and was, in fact, a loosely knit group, with the borders between those fighters who were members of, aligned with, or exterior to the MNLF never very clear. Nevertheless, the MNLF was the principal, and by far the most important, armed separatist organization, largely because it became the major supplier of arms and ideological support for the insurgency. One of the reasons for the loosely knit character of the MNLF was the fact that virtually its entire core leadership was, by 1973, operating from outside the country, far from local commanders. Nur Misuari, with a large reward offered for his capture, escaped from Manila to the South after martial law was declared, from there to Sabah, then on to Libya (George 1980; Majul 1985).

The MNLF was formally organized into two parallel structures: one political, the other military. The political wing was composed of a central committee, various bureaus, and a system of provincial and village committees. The military wing—the Bangsa Moro Army—had an overall field marshal, provincial field marshals, and zone commanders at the municipality level (Noble 1976). The chairman of the central committee, almost all of whose members were in Tripoli by 1974, was Nur Misuari. The vice-chairman, by 1974, was Hashim Salamat. In his 1977 interview, Salamat states that he and his companions were forced underground when, immediately after martial law, Datu Udtug signed an "affidavit" against them and turned it over to the Philippine Army (Mindanao Cross , February 12, 1977). A short while later, his group joined forces with Nur Misuari, and Salamat then made his way to Tripoli. Abulkhayr Alonto, member of a prominent Maranao family, was overall field commander of the Bangsa Moro Army and one of the few top leaders to remain in the Philippines. Although all estimates remain only rough guesses, the MNLF probably came to have between ten thousand and thirty thousand men in its military branch[22] (Noble 1976; Majul 1985). The authority over rebel fighters enjoyed by the MNLF derived at least partly from its access to critical resources, particularly weapons, from outside the Philippines. Before the removal from power of Tun Mustapha in late 1975, the primary conduit of weapons was by boat from Sabah (Noble 1976). The weapons arrived in Sabah from Libya and other Muslim nations. The MNLF also controlled political and military training, propaganda, and diplomatic contacts with Muslim, primarily Arab, states. Before considering the


ideological and diplomatic strategies of the MNLF, a description of the armed struggle in Cotabato is in order.

The Insurgency in Cotabato

Cotabato was the site for some of the earliest and most extensive armed collisions between government troops and Muslim insurgents. Despite the defensive and seemingly spontaneous nature of the earliest clashes, the insurgency in Cotabato quickly took on the appearance of coordination and centralized planning. In early 1973, in a "blitz-like operation" rebels simultaneously attacked at least eight municipalities in Cotabato and controlled them for some time (Abat 1993, 37). Cotabato City and its airport complex were ringed by MNLF-controlled areas and Datu Adil remembers that for lack of traffic, "grass grew on the main highway" linking the city and airport. After recovering from their shock at these coordinated assaults, Philippine Army commanders began to retake rebel-held areas by making use of their superior weaponry. In some cases, army counteroffensives were particularly brutal—reminiscent of the slaughters committed by the American army seventy years earlier. In a two-month siege of Tran, a rebel mountain stronghold in the Tiruray Highlands, hundreds of Muslim civilians were reportedly killed in repeated air bombardments.[23]

Both rebel and Muslim civilian casualties were heavy throughout 1973 due to a lack of training on the part of rebels and their reliance on the traditional but questionable strategy of creating fixed bases and attempting to hold them with relatively large contingents of fighters (Ahmad 1982). As a consequence, the rebels conceded the advantage of mobility to the army, which moved its troops in helicopters and troop carriers. In Tran, Reina Regente, and elsewhere, the Philippine Army conducted siege operations that left the rebels outmaneuvered and outgunned (Abat 1993; Ahmad 1982). By early 1974, however, the rebels had switched to a war of mobility and surprise, using guerrilla tactics and taking advantage of their familiarity with local marshes and jungles. Philippine Army strategy gradually shifted in response. In January of 1974 the Pulangi River was closed to all civilian traffic to impede the movements of Muslim guerrillas, and two months later all of the waterways in the newly created Maguindanao Province were closed by the military.[24] The government also gradually increased the number of military personnel deployed in Cotabato, and it adopted such Vietnam War tactics as the creation of strategic hamlets, new sur-



Cotabato MNLF fighters in the field, circa 1975. Although the Philippine
military closed all major rivers in Cotabato to civilian traffic in 1974 to impede
guerrilla activities, MNLF fighters were able to move largely unhindered on the
innumerable small waterways of the region. As pictured, MNLF fighters were
typically quite young, and many wore their hair long in keeping with the
fashion of the period. Photograph by Larry Johnson.

veillance techniques, and assassination squads (Ahmad 1982). The rebels, nonetheless, fared better than they had in 1973. Casualties lightened and morale increased. By February 1975 they were steadily harassing army positions at the edge of Cotabato City and shelling the city with mortars. Rice production in the region fell to less than 20 percent of normal yield (Kiefer 1987). Threatening the city, however, proved to be the maximum extent of rebel military capabilities, and by 1976 the war in Cotabato was stalemated, with neither side able to inflict a critical defeat on the other.

Rebel Leadership in Cotabato

Precise information on the organizational structure of rebel resistance in Cotabato is unavailable, but it is possible to discern some general outlines. Rebel leadership revolved around the MNLF but there also existed some independent or mostly autonomous commanders. The top MNLF leadership in the province was overwhelmingly young, most of them college students or recent college graduates when they joined the rebellion. These were, for the most part, the former members of the MIM youth section, both al-Azhar-graduated clerics and college-educated students or professionals. A number of them attended


classes at Notre Dame University in Cotabato City just prior to martial law. Some were members of prominent datu families, others were not.

Local rebel commanders were of two general types. Some were young and relatively well trained, having learned military skills in the army, the ROTC, or in the MNLF's Malaysian training camps. Others were former outlaws, possessing the two requisites for insurgency—guns and the inclination to use them against agents of the state—and finding common cause with the antigovernment stand of the MNLF. Two of the best-known rebel commanders in the province, Datu Ali Sansaluna and Disumimba Rashid (the same man who fought against the Tiruray), were outlaws as well as sons of nonprominent datu families before joining the MNLF. Both had acquired popular (if not entirely deserved) reputations as social bandits prior to becoming rebels. Datu Ali attained a high position in the provincial command of the MNLF but was assassinated as the result of an internal power struggle in 1974. Disumimba surrendered personally to President Marcos in 1980 for the promised sum of 1 million pesos (see chapter 8).

Support from elite noncombatants is also somewhat difficult to assess. Some established datus supported the rebels clandestinely, a few did so openly; most, as we shall see, did not support them. There was one new elite group that provided quite substantial financial, logistical, and even military support to the rebels. They were the former cigarette smugglers of the Cotabato coast. Those engaged in cigarette smuggling had generally prospered from the trade, and the most successful of them had shifted fairly easily to legal enterprises, investing in maritime transportation, fishing, urban real estate, or agricultural land. When the insurgency erupted, the former smugglers were positioned, as well as inclined, to aid the rebels. For one, they possessed the resources, skills, and contacts to smuggle arms from Sabah through Sulu to Cotabato. They were also well positioned to help rebel commanders in Cotabato coordinate activities with fellow rebel leaders in Sulu and those in self-imposed exile in Sabah. Very few of the former smugglers had been involved with national party politics and most were strongly opposed to the Philippine state, and to Ferdinand Marcos in particular, because of the forced curtailment of smuggling. In addition, they had no strong ties with the prominent datu families of the province, most of whom regarded them as parvenus. A number of the former smugglers provided very substantial support for the separatist rebellion in Cotabato in the form of supplies, shelter, transportation, and smug-


gling services. Many former smugglers and, more commonly, sons of smugglers also fought actively in the rebellion.

Magindanaon Datus and the Rebellion

Individual members of prominent datu families were faced with severe political constraints during the rebellion. If they supported the martial law government they risked rebel retaliation and the loss of political legitimacy. If they supported the rebels, they invited government reprisals and the forfeiture of their political positions. Given those pressures, the established Muslim political elite of Cotabato responded to the insurgency in three general ways. One segment reacted by denouncing the rebels outright and pledging loyalty to the martial law state. This group was composed, first, of Nacionalista datus such as the Sinsuats and Ampatuans. At the first indication of insurgency in Cotabato in early 1973, the Sinsuat family issued a "manifesto" in which they denied any part in the rebellion, pledged their loyalty to President Marcos and the republic, and predicted the "ultimate triumph of the military forces" (Mindanao Cross , March 31, 1973). However, that sort of response was also publicly made by a number of their former Liberalista foes, including the two most prominent ones. Datu Udtug met with President Marcos in early January 1973, well before any concerted rebel activity in Cotabato, to pledge his cooperation with the martial law regime. A few months later, after the insurgency had intensified, Datu Udtug publicly denounced the rebels, expressed ignorance of their motives, and stated that he was "against them" because they did "not listen to and cooperate with the datus of Lanao, Sulu, and Cotabato" (quoted in Mindanao Cross , March 31, 1973). Udtug made similar public statements throughout the rebellion, charging the rebels as outlaws and condemning "unscrupulous" Islamic clerics associated with the rebellion.

While the response of Datu Udtug was motivated (at least in part) by his loss once again of influence and authority, the reaction of Salipada Pendatun illustrates the more ambivalent reaction of an opposition Muslim politician left suddenly with neither power nor a familiar forum. Pendatun remained in Manila (and spent some time in the United States) for two years after the declaration of martial law. In late 1973, in his one public statement on the rebellion published in Cotabato, he urged Muslim support for the martial law regime. In late


1974 he returned to Cotabato, he announced, in order to "get involved in the restoration of peace and order in Maguindanao" (quoted in Mindanao Cross , November 9, 1974). Pendatun arranged a series of meetings with city leaders soon after his arrival to try to stop the fighting, which had become quite intense and close to the city. The major result of those meetings was a joint statement calling for, among other things, the withdrawal of the military from Cotabato. A few weeks later, four grenades were thrown into the Pendatun compound in Cotabato City and a short time after that Pendatun left the country for the Middle East. There he joined with Rashid Lucman and together they offered their assistance to Nur Misuari, who created an advisory council for them to head (George 1980, 262). By 1977, however, the two former congressmen were attempting to take control of the MNLF away from Misuari. Not succeeding at that, they formed their own organization, the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO), based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The BMLO took precedence over the MNLF, stated Pendatun and Lucman, because their early support of Misuari had been crucial for the formation of the MNLF. Notwithstanding their claims, the BMLO garnered little support in the Philippines and almost none in Arab capitals (Majul 1985). In 1980, Pendatun returned to the Philippines and publicly pledged his services to President Marcos and the martial law government. Within weeks he was back in Cotabato making speeches where he "reminded the Muslims of the many good things done for them by President Marcos" (Mindanao Cross , January 10, 1981).

A second group of datus, mostly young and educated at Manila universities, were less obviously but more actively compliant to the martial law regime. These individuals professed sympathy with many of the grievances of the rebels but rejected violence or secession as legitimate means to redress those wrongs. They accepted government money or took government positions and, as sponsored intellectuals or government officials, cooperated with the martial law state.

A third segment chose active rebellion. Those who initially chose this course were often the junior members of datu families, many the sons or younger brothers of those who followed the first two strategies. Some became local field commanders and others attained high positions in the Kutawato Revolutionary Committee, the provincial leadership body of the MNLF. The most notable feature of the traditional elite leadership of the rebellion in Cotabato was its rapid rate of defection. Datu commanders surrendered earlier and in greater num-


bers than any other rebel leaders. The defections of the most prominent datu commanders appear directly linked to the efforts of other datus (often close relatives of the former) working with the martial law regime. Datu Guiwan Mastura, the nominal leader of a segment of the Tran insurgents and the former mayor of Lebak, was the first prominent datu commander to surrender. In June of 1973, Datu Guiwan and twelve other ostensible rebels—all prominent datus—personally surrendered to President Marcos. Their surrender reportedly was arranged by Simeon Datumanong, who, a few months later, was appointed by Marcos as governor of the newly created province of Maguindanao (Damaso 1983). In March 1975, Peping Candao, an MNLF commander and son of a prominent Muslim politician in Cotabato City, surrendered with his men. One year following his return, his brother, Zacaria Candao, was appointed governor of Maguindanao Province to replace Datumanong who had taken a higher position with the government. In January 1976, the director of the political bureau of the Kutawato Revolutionary Committee defected to the government, and one month later his older brother became executive director of the Regional Commission for the newly created Region 12, a multiprovince governmental division covering central Mindanao. By 1980, virtually all members of the traditional elite had abandoned the rebellion. Most former outlaws had also surrendered for cash rewards, thus leaving, in the words of a current rebel commander, "mostly the poor remaining" to carry on the armed revolt.[25]

Chapter 7 Muslim Separatism and the Bangsamoro Rebellion

Preferred Citation: McKenna, Thomas M. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1998.